Early Snow Kills Many State Budgets

The harsh early-winter weather has left municipalities across the country struggling to find money for snow removal. In Des Moines, Iowa, for example, the public works department has already spent its entire annual budget for keeping the streets clear of snow and ice.

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It has already been a brutal winter in many parts of this country and we are only a month into it. It costs a lot of money to keep streets clear of snow and ice.

As Iowa Public Radio's Rob Dillard reports, some cities have already exhausted their entire snow removal budgets.

(Soundbite of snow blower)

ROB DILLARD: On East 6th Street in downtown Des Moines, work crews are doing what they call snow loading. An enormous blower inches along a normally busy thoroughfare, sucking up mounds of dirty snow from curbsides and dumping it into trucks to be hauled away from downtown.

Des Moines Public Works Director Bill Stowe says it's a difficult and expensive job.

Mr. BILL STOWE (Public Works Director, Des Moines): This kind of event for a couple square miles here in the downtown cost nearly a half million dollars each time we do it. We've done it twice now in the last month. So it's a very expensive situation. Typically, in a normal winter we would not do it once, let alone, twice.

DILLARD: One problem for Stowe is that he's already blown through the $3 million the city budget had for snow removal for the entire year.

Mr. STOWE: We're now at a point where we're basically moving it from long-term maintenance accounts over into snow and ice control just to be able to clear the streets and make them safe in the winter.

DILLARD: Des Moines has been buried by three blizzards so far this season, dropping more than 30 inches on the ground twice the normal accumulation. It's been a severe winter in many parts of the country. Ice and snow removal budgets have been depleted in cities and counties nationwide. Kansas City already spent the $2.5 million it allocated for snow removal and now expects to spend as much as $4 million. Officials in Colorado Springs say they won't even bother plowing residential streets until at least six inches fall.

The village of Genesee, Wisconsin with a population of just 7,500 set aside $300,000 for snow removal and that's already gone. The town's clerk, Barbara Whitmore, says it's had to cut back a bit on service.

Ms. BARBARA WHITMORE (Clerk, Genesee, Wisconsin): This year we're looking more at only doing the stop areas, curbs and hills.

DILLARD: Every year the Washington, D.C. based American Public Works Association sponsors a conference where the heads of public works departments discuss the latest in snow and ice removal. A couple of years ago, many griped about the high cost of salt. The group's executive director, Peter King, says he has a feel for what they'll be talking about this year.

Mr. PETER KING (Executive Director, American Public Works Association): I'm thinking it's probably going to be more focused on predictions and how the public safety can be protected when the budget shortfall comes into play.

DILLARD: Meanwhile, back on the streets of Des Moines, public works director Bill Stowe is done with predictions.

Mr. STOWE: We were actually told by distinguished climatologists, including the state climatologist that this would be a relatively easy winter. Clearly, that prognostication didn't work very well. So, we've kind of lost our reliance on long-term forecasts.

DILLARD: In a typical year, which this is not, Des Moines will receive another 20 inches of snow between now and the last snowflake.

For NPR News, I'm Rob Dillard in Des Moines.

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